When President Isaac Herzog stepped up to the podium at the United States Capital in Washington, DC, to address a joint session of Congress last Wednesday, he was not standing alone. Standing behind him, sharing that podium, facing both Houses of Congress, stood another 9,174,520 Israelis.
Herzog was the embodiment of the mosaic of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Circassians; those who are secular, traditional, and Orthodox; of all denominations, and all possible views and lifestyles that comprise Israel. And he represented them well.
When Herzog delivered his address to both Houses of Congress, he joined the illustrious cadre of former presidents and prime ministers of Israel who, like him, presented the face of Israel to the American public. And on this occasion, honoring the 75th birthday of the Jewish state, as on so many previous occasions, the effect was mesmerizing.
He spoke masterfully. His message was inspirational. His imagery rekindled the romance that had worn thin – but had not worn out. And he let no one forget that, “When the United States is strong, Israel is stronger. And when Israel is strong, the United States is more secure.”
Israeli leaders have, over the years, been exceptional at transmitting Israel’s message to the United States. There will always be those who deride Israel, elected officials who refuse to attend official presentations delivered by senior Israeli leaders, but that’s their problem – not Israel’s. Their lack of presence diminishes them, not the presenter, and certainly not the State of Israel.
Speeches, like the one delivered by President Herzog, are a testament to just how important Israel is on the world map. And while a polished presenter is an effective presenter, what really counts is the message.
And while many of the Israelis invited to speak before Congress have spoken either the King’s English, like the inimitable Abba Eban (who, coincidentally was an uncle of President Herzog); English with a slight Irish brogue like the sixth president of Israel and this president’s father, Chaim Herzog; or a perfect and schooled American English, like Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu, many others have not.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was not a master of the English language. Menachem Begin had a strong Eastern European accent and delivered an entire speech before Congress from memory without faltering. He did not use a single note. Shimon Peres had an even stronger European accent. But the ability of each one of them to deliver the Israeli message to the American audience was profound.
They were great and charismatic communicators, each in his own way. Differing in their political points of view and style, united in their ability to communicate their message in compelling and, oftentimes, poetic ways.
And the most unlikely of friendships emerged. Who can forget that powerful picture of President Bill Clinton and Eitan Haber, the adviser of Yitzhak Rabin, helping the prime minister straighten his bow tie before a formal dinner at the White House?
Herzog followed in the footsteps of Israel's greatest leaders
President Herzog followed a template that every successful Israeli leader has followed – especially when speaking before Congress in the “chamber of freedom and liberty.” They speak of mutual respect and shared values between the US and Israel. They reiterate that countries, like family and friends, will often disagree with each other. They reinforce their shared commitment to democracy, to “realizing the hopes of our founding fathers and mothers” and to biblical foundations.
The speech reinforced just how universal support for Israel is in the US Congress. The handful of congresspeople who boycotted the presentation are an anomaly. They are a loud anomaly who, unfortunately, receive excessive media coverage.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again – I am a lover of Israel, an unabashedly proud lover of Israel. But I am also a professional and honest critic. When I think the State of Israel, or an Israeli, has acted improperly or spoken improperly, I will call them out. And I have no critique of President Herzog’s performance. It was scripted well and well delivered. It hit all the proper notes and delivered the message it intended to deliver.
There are those who think that Herzog should have been less diplomatic, that he should have been more forceful, and that he should have been more critical of Israel’s enemies. I disagree. In seven words, he said it all. “True peace cannot be anchored in violence.”
Well done, President Herzog.
The writer is a columnist and a social and political commentator. Watch his new TV show Thinking Out Loud on the Jewish Broadcasting Service. His latest book is Thugs.